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Healthy Eating for Teenagers and Young People Aged 13 to 18 Years

Teenagers are going through significant physical and emotional changes. Growth and development requires energy and nutrients. They may begin to think more about their body shape and compare themselves to others. They can also have greater independence over their own food choices and how to spend free time. Many external influences such as peer pressure, the desire to fit in among friends, social media and food marketing may influence what teenagers eat.

Healthy weight

Increasing numbers of children of all ages are above a healthy weight. Those who are obese in their early teens are more likely to remain so as adults, increasing their risk of preventable health conditions including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

To help your teenager maintain a healthy weight try to encourage them to:

  • Enjoy a healthy and varied diet
  • Limit the amount of foods, drinks and snacks that are high in fat and sugar  
  • Be active for at least 60 minutes a day

Positive body image

Teenagers may begin to think about their body shape and compare themselves to their peers and people they see on social media. Find out more information about supporting your teenager to have a positive body image.

What to feed your teenager

A healthy and balanced diet should include: 

  • At least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day.
  • Meals based on starchy foods such as potatoes, bread, pasta and rice. Choose wholegrain varieties when possible.
  • Some milk and dairy products or alternatives. Choose semi or semi-skimmed milk where you can.
  • Some foods that are good sources of protein such as meat, fish, eggs, beans and lentils.

Make sure they don’t skip breakfast

Evidence also shows that eating a healthy breakfast at the start of the school day can contribute to improved readiness to learn, increased concentration, and improved wellbeing and behaviour.

Some quick and nutritious breakfast ideas include: 

  • Wholegrain toast with spread, glass of orange juice and a yogurt. Why not try unsweetened/ plain yogurt and top with some fruit? 
  • A bowl of cereal (see top tip) with skimmed or semi-skimmed milk and some fruit
  • Porridge with chopped banana and a handful of blueberries or dried fruit

Watch this short video on the Eatwell Guide for useful hints and tips.

Many breakfast cereals have added vitamins and minerals. Cereal can be a quick, easy and nutritious option for breakfast. Try to choose high fibre varieties to help you feel fuller for longer and prevent constipation. You should watch out for breakfast cereals that contain lots of sugar e.g. any that are chocolate, honey or sugar coated. 

Boost iron

Iron is important for teenagers to help their bodies grow. Girls have higher iron requirements once they start their periods, however UK dietary surveys indicate that almost half of girls aged 11 to 18 are not getting enough iron in their diet. Find out more iron on the British Dietetic Association (BDA) website.

Here's some useful things to consider:

  • Red meats are rich sources of iron, and the iron they contain is well absorbed. Other animal proteins such as fish and poultry also contain iron.
  • Plant-based sources of iron include beans, peas, lentils, dark green vegetables, nuts and seeds.
  • Other foods such as some breads and breakfast cereals are fortified with iron

If your teenager is vegan or vegetarian, try to include some vitamin C and avoid tea or coffee during meals to help iron absorption. 

Build up bones

Getting enough calcium is important for healthy bones and teeth. During teenage years, bones are growing in size and density which is why young people have high requirements for calcium.

Dairy products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese are the best sources of calcium, but there are also non-dairy foods that contain calcium including:

  • Calcium-fortified dairy alternatives
  • White and brown bread
  • Calcium-fortified breakfast cereals
  • Dark green vegetables
  • Fish that contains bones (such as sardines, pilchards, mackerel)

Find out more information about calcium on the British Dietetic Association (BDA) website.

Choose lower fat dairy products when you can as they have the same amount of calcium as the full-fat versions. 

Remember to check that plant-based alternatives to dairy have added calcium (often called ‘fortified’). Most organic products are not calcium-fortified.

Healthy snacks

Teenagers shouldn’t fill up on sugary or fatty foods such as crisps, sweets, cakes, biscuits, or with sugary fizzy drinks. These tend to be high in calories but contain few nutrients.

Fresh fruit and vegetables are always the best snack choice – they contain vitamins and minerals, are a good source of fibre and count towards our '5 a day'. Plus, they're easy to eat on the go!

Tips for healthier snacking include:

  • If your teenager is hungry after school, swap home-time biscuits, sweets, chocolate and cakes for healthier snacks like fruit and chopped veggies, plain rice cakes with soft cheese, toast with spread or a fruited teacake.
  • Fill up the fridge with easy to grab healthy options such as chopped and ready-to-eat fruit and veg, like apple, carrot, cucumber, celery, peppers, strawberries, grapes, tinned pineapple or melon slices pre-prepared for a quick snack.
  • Have healthy snacks to hand such as a fruit bowl in the house so fruity snacks are nearby. 
  • A drink with a snack can be a double sugar overload. So swap sugary and fizzy drinks for diet or no added sugar drinks, semi or semi-skimmed milks or water.

Further information and resources